by Anthony Kershaw
I have a real soft spot for Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), favourite audio resident of Steyning, Sussex, England. The legendary B&W 801F loudspeakers were the first true high end speaker I heard at length. I remember the sound from almost 30 years ago like it was yesterday — along with a fancy new source called a compact disk (via a Luxman CD player). It got me hooked into high end audio and the passion has continued unabated.
B&W has always been in the forefront of speaker manufacture, building on the brilliance of the 801s, and culminating in the late 90s with Nautilus 801F — a fabulous looking monster with an equally fabulous sound (and price!). So, it was quite a surprise when the venerable company released an iPod dock, the Zeppelin. Sure, Bose and others have produced docks for the MP3 player craze, but no high end company had bothered. Enter B&W.
It makes economic sense. In some ways Audiophilia is becoming even more diluted with the dullness and popularity of basic MP3. In other ways, the explosion of iTunes, iPods, and players and computers to power them, makes it essential that companies allot some of it resources to capitalize. VW makes a ton of Golfs which in turn funds Audi which funds Lamborghini which funds the Phaeton and Bugatti Veyron (sound system by Dieter Burmerster, BTW!).
Let me be completely clear about this very sexy bit of kit. The Zeppelin Mini, like its larger brother, the Zeppelin, is not an audiophile product. As such, I will not review it as one. It fills a void providing good sound in small spaces such as bedrooms, kitchens, and hip, urban condos. It is not powerful enough to fill medium to large dedicated sound rooms with balanced, distortion-free sound. Thus, it’s best left to be on show in your small loft, master bedroom or non-country kitchen.
Specifications include 36 watts of Class D amplification, two 3″ glass fibre drivers and a rear firing bass port. The pebble shaped remote is of the minimalist type — On/Off, volume, source. Features include Digital Signal Processing (DSP), Switch mode power supply, a rotating arm for cover flow operation, USB streaming from PC/Mac, and iPod/ iTunes sync. Inputs are a 30-pin iPod connector, 3.5 mm mini jack analogue and a USB 2.0 for PC/Mac connection. Audiophile purists will appreciate the lack of a built-in equalizer or dedicated treble/mid/bass adjustments. Either of these would have been beneficial, however.
The style and size of this sound dock (iPod dock, MP3 dock, etc) is its primary aural drawback. There is little or no separation of the speakers, and with no electrical hocus pocus to give a stereo illusion (thank God!), the listener is receiving a pinpoint sound of an almost mono character. That said, the sound it does produce is refulgent and quite well balanced.
I used a variety of music and speech from two sources, an iPod Classic (120G) and my trusty iPhone. Interestingly, the sound from the iPod Classic sounded a little better than the iPhone! Who knew? All musical tracks were downloaded on iTunes at the ‘Plus’ bit rate of 256 kbps. And, yes, there is a difference between 128 kbps and 256, even through the Zeppelin Mini. I did not use CD rips or flac files, etc.
Tracks from the great Madama Butterfly Rome Opera/Tebaldi sounded excellent. The sound was well balanced and had plenty of bass from such an old source. Musical balance is what came to mind on the ultra fast Gergiev/Nutcracker. How would anybody dance to these tempos? Valery, it’s a ‘ballet’!
If the source was bright, the Zeppelin mini did little to ameliorate the effect, it fact, it compounded the issue at times. Again, there is just not enough separation or power to compensate for poor recordings. As such, consider your sources carefully. 128 kb rips can sound very tinny on the Zeppelin Mini. I tested this with a 128 copy of Walton’s First Symphony with the LSO on LSO lIve. The treble transients were far too sharp edged for comfort. Even the 258 copy I have gave the dock some trouble.
Late light listening in the master bedroom while reading a Kindle was very enjoyable. My attention was elsewhere and the B&W gave the impression of calm and peace in a tranquil environment. Elaine Elias’ Brazilian vocals sounded fantastic, here. But scrutiny was low, and therein lies the tale.
As a lifestyle product, as a wonderful looking piece of design, as a kitchen/bedroom/studio apartment solution, the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Mini works wonderfully. You’ll get balanced sound from a pinpoint source, fairly good range (source dependent), and a certain pride of ownership. For civilians, this just may be enough. For audiophiles, it won’t be considered as anything other than a specific task bit of kit. As an example, when they don’t want to fire up the tubes, clean the LP, and a gorgeous woman is coming over, the wine is being poured and the geekiness is put in the closet for the evening.
B&W Zeppelin Mini iPod Sound Dock
Source: Manufacturer Loan